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Memories of a moving church

As the son of an Anglican preacher man in the Northern Cape (when it was still only a part of the Cape province — not that that makes any difference), I used to travel vast empty dusty grinding distances with my dad from one remote congregation to another.

In some places church was somebody’s house. Everyone brought their own folding chairs and cushions to kneel on. My dad had his “moving church”– a folding camping table as altar, a little dark-brown school case that held altar linen, a plain wooden crucifix that fitted into a base, two wooden candle sticks, a pack of Lighthouse candles and Lion matches, wafers, wine (trusty red Muscadel) chalice and silver platter. A larger suitcase held his robes and my altar server’s cassock and surplice (the loose white poncho-like tunic one wears over the cassock).

In other less posh places, church was beneath the largest camel-thorn tree one could find — normally also the local community meeting place. Congregants sat on stools, up-turned paint tins or on the ground. There was no dress-code, but scratch-poor though they were, everyone delighted in putting on “kerkklere” (church clothes) when the “moruti” (minister) came.

We made do with a cobbled-together Englikaans with English for the formal liturgy. All the “thees” and “thous” and big words impressed Kalahari congregations enormously and, childishly self-important, I delighted in showing off by reciting the full communion service as loud as would be acceptable off by heart knowing this endowed me with great respect, especially among the pigtailed giggling glancing girls.

The sermon was usually in Afrikaans. I never realised it then, but my father was possessed of a special talent for making ancient Biblical symbolism and complex Christian theological concepts such as the immaculate conception, soteriology, atonement and redemption, resurrection and ascension accessible in “allemanstaal” (every man’s language).

Having grown up himself on a farm near what is today the Witsand National Park, he understood the idiom. I was blasé about most of it having heard his sermons dozens of times (sometimes we’d get through four services on a Sunday). But I remember many times seeing the furrowed faces of people as they struggled to imagine the Roman Empire, the occupation of Palestine, the brutality of scourging and crucifixion.

Other New Testament concepts such as the centrality of water in the desert, the importance of shepherds guarding flocks (sheep or goats, didn’t matter) and the stoic utility of donkeys came much easier to them.

The parable of the good Samaritan was easiest to comprehend. The “bruinmense” (brown people) and the few Setswana-speaking locals knew what it was to be ostracised and barred from places with signs that read “Net Blankes/Whites Only” just as the Samaritans were. In fact, years later as someone who makes his living out of communication, I remain awed by the universality and ease with which diverse people the world over have understood the contextual messages of parables.

They’re thousands of times more powerful than verbose diatribes of the kind our business people, academics and politicians so cherish. Jesus and later his disciples understood this better than we give them credit for. The Lord’s Prayer contains a neat 60 words, The Sermon on the Mount about 130 (depending on which version of the Bible you use) while the European Union’s Protocol on the Importation of Eggs contains more than 37 000 words.

That’s always made me think. So with bucolic memories of a moving church, the rugged desert folk of Northern Cape and Kalahari, the profound symbolism of worship beneath a crown of camel thorns and the simplicity of meaning captured in the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things, I bid you good night and God bless.